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Hamilton County Education Association v. Hamilton County Board of Education

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

June 9, 2015

HAMILTON COUNTY EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, Plaintiff,
v.
HAMILTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

CURTIS L. COLLIER, District Judge.

Before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Hamilton County Education Association ("Association") and Defendant Hamilton County Board of Education ("Board") (Court File Nos. 13, 17). Both parties responded (Court File Nos. 20, 21) and the Board replied (Court File No. 22). The Association asserts two claims for alleged violations of the Tennessee Education Professionals Negotiation Act ("EPNA") and one claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of the Association's rights under the First Amendment. The parties generally agree on the facts ( see Court File Nos. 15, 19), but disagree on the application of the law to those facts. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will GRANT the Board's motion for summary judgment (Court File No. 17) and DENY the Association's motion for summary judgment (Court File No. 13).

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

Under the EPNA the Association was recognized as the exclusive representative of professional employees employed by the Board. The Association and the Board entered into a three-year collective bargaining agreement May 19, 2011. This agreement was governed by the EPNA. On June 30, 2014, the agreement was due to expire. In the intervening period, the Tennessee legislature passed the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act ("PECCA") which modified and amended the EPNA but which would not govern the relationship between the parties until the expiration of their three-year agreement. One relevant change for purposes of this case is that "management team members" (which include principals and assistant principals) would no longer be included in the membership totals of any professional employees' organization and would thus not have the right to participate in concerted activities as part of a professional employees' organization. Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-602(4), (8), (9).

On September 17, 2013, the Association conducted its Representative Assembly, a monthly meeting among the Association Representatives and the building representatives that together make up the Association's leadership. The next day, a teacher forwarded notes taken during the meeting to the Board's Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Stacy Stewart. In response to those notes, Stewart inquired into what had occurred at the meeting and received several reports. Later that day, Stewart received a text message informing her of additional comments made by the Association's President Sandra Hughes at a principal's meeting where Hughes encouraged the principals to maintain their membership in the Association.

On September 27, 2013, Stewart wrote Hughes a letter in Hughes' official capacity as Association President (Court File No. 1-1, Compl. Ex. 1). In this letter she referenced the comments made at the September 18 principal's meeting and the PECCA and stated that the Association could not represent principals or count them among membership totals. She also expressed concern regarding other statements made by Association representatives at their September 17 meeting that she worried "could be construed as intimidating" ( id. ). Specifically, she referred to Association claims that, without the Association, teachers could be subjected to ten hour workdays and 100 page code of conduct documents and could lose medical and retirement benefits. Finally, she referenced pejorative comments made regarding a competing professional organization. She closed the letter by citing to the PECCA prohibition on professional organizations attempting to coerce employees. Stewart stated that continuing this conduct would "either result in an official request for a retraction of such statements or in clarification/correction of these statements by the district" ( id. ).

On March 20, 2014 the Association filed this action alleging that the letter violated the EPNA as well as the Association's rights under the First Amendment in Hamilton County Chancery Court (Court File No. 1-1). This action was removed by the Board to this Court on March 21, 2014 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446 (Court File No. 1).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Leary v. Daeschner, 349 F.3d 888, 897 (6th Cir. 2003). The Court should view the evidence, including all reasonable inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Nat'l Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001).

To survive a motion for summary judgment, "the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with specific facts to demonstrate that there is a genuine issue for trial." Chao v. Hall Holding Co., Inc., 285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). Indeed, a "[plaintiff] is not entitled to a trial on the basis of mere allegations." Smith v. City of Chattanooga, No. 1:08-cv-63, 2009 WL 3762961, at *2-3 (E.D. Tenn. Nov. 4, 2009) (explaining the court must determine whether "the record contains sufficient facts and admissible evidence from which a rational jury could reasonably find in favor of [the] plaintiff"). In addition, should the non-moving party fail to provide evidence to support an essential element of its case, the movant can meet its burden of demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact exists by pointing out such failure to the court. Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989).

At summary judgment, the Court's role is limited to determining whether the case contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find for the non-movant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). If the Court concludes a fair-minded jury could not return a verdict in favor of the non-movant based on the record, the Court should grant summary judgment. Id. at 251-52; Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy, 39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994).

III. ANALYSIS

A. State Law Claims

The Association alleges two substantive violations of Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-606. The Association first claims that the letter interfered with, restrained or coerced employees in the exercise of their rights under Section 603. It then claims that the Board dominated or interfered with the administration of the Association and assisted a rival organization. The Board in response argues first that the Association's claims under the EPNA have been mooted by the passage of the PECCA. It then ...


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